Quick Summary: The protagonist of Backman’s novel is Swedish seven-year-old Elsa (who is "almost eight"). She loves her grandmother but has a conflicted relationship with her mother. She quickly comes to discover that her grandmother is dying. Her grandmother directs Elsa to deliver a series of apology letters through which Elsa has to come to terms with a very different picture of her grandmother than the one she knew. Backman unveils her grandmother’s connections to the other characters as the story unfolds. (Photo credit: Sara; check out her Meaningful Madness site)
My Take: I found this one a bit slow moving at first, but I quickly grew to love Elsa, and I found myself empathizing with her struggle to understand the way the world was shifting around her. Elsa has to confront the harsh realities of the world, one filled with loss, cruelty, isolation, and unimaginable courage. Although she mourns the loss of her grandmother, she grows to discover the truth about her grandmother's life and comes to love the people who had been precious to her grandmother.
My conclusion: Though I had to warm up to this one, it has left a tender impression on my heart. I'm a fan. I wanted a bit more explanation in places, and I could've used a few more tied up ends, but I really loved it overall. 4/5 stars.
"The mightiest power of death is not that it can make people die, but that it can make the people left behind want to stop living." - This book has some raw moments when it comes to capturing the pain of grief and the way it can entirely consume a person.
"Grow up and be different and don’t let anyone tell you not to be different, because all superheroes are different." - Yes! I love the way her grandmother empowers Elsa to be courageous and to be her own person.
"People in the real world always say, when something terrible happens, that the sadness and loss and aching pain of the heart will ‘lessen as time passes’, but it isn’t true. Sorrow and loss are constant, but if we all had to go through our whole lives carrying them the whole time, we wouldn’t be able to stand it. The sadness would paralyse us. So in the end we just pack it into bags and find somewhere to leave it." - As I mentioned above, the way that Backman can show the depth of grief is one of the best aspects of this novel.
What I added to my TBR list: Fannie Flagg’s Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man
Sara recommended this one, and it sounded great. I have never read Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, but I grew up (in Georgia) watching that movie. Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man sounds like a captivating story, and I'll be checking it out soon!
Teaching Tips: This would work well as a lit circle book for upper level junior or senior classes. It certainly holds up to analysis and could be grouped with other books about grief, secrets, reconciliation, or coming of age.
Podcast Highlights: I loved when Jenni talked about the Worst and said, "It's a dog. Just call it a dog!" Jen made a great point about the grandmother when she talked about her own grandma and how she was "her person" and she knew that her grandma always supported her no matter what. I also really enjoyed our discussion about the way that the magic in her life changed and faded as she learned more about reality.
I'm excited to share that I'm now part of a podcast, Unabridged: Four Teachers Take on Books. We're launching in February of 2018! As part of the podcast, I plan to share my thoughts on the books we cover along with teaching ideas here on this site.
Exciting times! Changes are on the way. Here's our Episode Zero introducing us and the podcast.
First of all, MAN, it is HARD to post when in the last trimester of pregnancy with a toddler. And even harder with an infant and a toddler! Still, getting this post (which I started ages ago) completed is the hardest part, and I'm determined to do it TODAY. I hope to post more frequently in the future, even if those posts are shorter and more focused on book reviews. Thank you to those who have stuck with me through this blogging journey. Despite the fact that I had hoped to post sooner, I realize as I read over the part of this I already wrote how pertinent it is in light of the recent events in our country. Okay, here goes...
Last winter, I read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee for the first time in my life. (I've been meaning to write about it since then, but pregnancy and a toddler have certainly slowed my posting pace.) It was a fantastic book, and I do feel like I missed out a bit by not having read it sooner. At its core, To Kill a Mockingbird shows an authentic picture of what life is like in small, Southern towns--what it was like then, and what it is like for many people even now. I think what struck me most about To Kill a Mockingbird is that while it is certainly a book about the cruelty of racism, that aspect is just one component of a larger tapestry of what it means to be a southern girl growing up in a small town in Alabama. I think what interests me most is that in many places, we are still using this novel to teach about race. My father, who hated everything about education growing up in Alabama loved To Kill a Mockingbird, but I think what he loved about it most was what it revealed about the problems with public education in the South for he knew all too well the flaws in the system. Anyway, my point is to say that he loved that book when he read it in the 1960s.
Here's what I want to know: Today, in 2016, is To Kill a Mockingbird still the best novel that we can use to teach about race?
For better or worse, I'm always reluctant to post controversial things. While I'm quite opinionated and not particularly "centrist" with my ideas, I prefer to keep things neutral when possible. I know I'm talking about a novel that many revere as sacred here, and I'm hesitant to say anything to rock the boat. But with white police killing black boys on a weekly basis and presidential candidates clearly promoting white superiority, I cannot help but think we have to do more to better educate our youth about race relations. Black lives matter, and black lives (as well as the lives of other people of color) need to be more of a focus in the literature that we teach. I have to question whether a southern novel written by a white woman in the 1960s is the best way we have to foster those discussions about race and the Other. I am not suggesting that we abandon the classics or stop teaching this novel, but I would like for us to take a long look at WHY we're teaching it and whether it truly meets all of our goals. What I don't want to see happen is for teachers to feel that they can check "race and racism" off on their list simply because they taught this novel.
I'd like to consider some other texts that might work better for us to talk about the complexities of race in today's society.
All American Boys (Jayson Reynolds and Brendan Kiely): This is a phenomenal read that highlights the complexity of race relations, particularly related to the issues we're seeing in our country today between police and the black community. Reynolds and Kiely write the novel from two perspectives, that of a black boy who is wrongly attacked by a police officer in a convenience store, and that of a white boy from the same school who witnesses the attack and knows the police officer well. While Reynolds and Kiely do an amazing job of layering and showing complexity, they write in a way that is very approachable for high school readers.
“Had our hearts really become so numb that we needed dead bodies in order to feel the beat of compassion in our chests? Who am I if I need to be shocked back into my best self?”
Citizen: An American Lyric (Claudia Rankine): This poetry collection addresses the experiences of a black woman in America. It has images and art throughout that enhance the reader's experience. I love that it's poetry, and I was amazed by the way Rankine could evoke such powerful responses with so few words. This text would be hard for some students, but it would definitely work nicely paired with other texts, and excerpts could easily be used to complement other texts in class. The quote below--alone on a page in the collection--resonates so loudly as we face the news today.
“because white men can't
Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates): In this stunning work, Coates writes directly to his fifteen-year-old son. He tells his son of his own struggles and of how he feels about where we are in the world today and what it means to be a "black body" living in a world with people who "believe themselves to be white." Stunningly powerful and at times heart-wrenching, Coates brings to life the difficulties of where we are in our country today. It's a challenging read for high school students, but it can certainly make an impact, and it would work also work as excerpts to complement other texts.
“But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.”
Brown Girl Dreaming (Jacqueline Woodson):
Beautiful, gracious, and enlightening, Woodson's longer work in verse reflects on her youth leading into her adulthood. It's a captivating story that weaves together her family experiences, her own desires, and the pathway that led to her current life. Even better--it's poetry! Like Citizen, it would make a great work for excerpts, and it would expose the students to some stunning (but also accessible) poetry. Woodson comments on race and gender as a part of her life experiences, but the story simply tells of a girl's coming of age.
“I believe in one day and someday and this perfect moment called Now."
There are so many amazing options out there that can facilitate meaningful conversations about race, and those conversations could not be more important in our country than they are today. While I loved To Kill a Mockingbird, it's not the only text out there that can shed light on the injustices and barbarity of racism.
“He's getting old. I don't count the years. I don't multiply by seven. They bred dogs for everything else, even diving for fish, why didn't they breed them to live longer, to live as long as a man?”
My dog is dying. She's my beloved friend and companion, and she's been with us since before my mom died in 2004. She's perfect. Confident, kind, independent but affectionate. She's gotten me through some really rough times in my life. And she is dying.
The trip to the vet early last June was a casual one--just a routine checkup. They found out from their checkup that she had congestive heart failure and kidney failure. In December, we found out she also has bladder cancer. She's certainly beaten the odds. The fact that she's still with us a year later is amazing. And yet each time we take her the news inevitably gets worse.
She spends more time with us these days. She lovingly tolerates my toddler's affection, which involves putting blankets, hats, and aprons on her. Pulling her tail. Her ears. Shoving various toys and random household items under her nose. "Brushing" her with a broom. Despite their rather precarious relationship, she ventures upstairs and sits in my daughter's room as long as we'll let her--a space she used to avoid as she waited for us to return downstairs. She spends every second we're home with us as if she knows what we know all too well--our time together draws ever shorter. And yet she cannot protect us from the inevitable heartbreak. She cannot stop us from missing her.
As I spend my time contemplating my endless love for my sweet dog, I have found myself thinking so often of a book I read a couple of years ago, The Dog Stars by Peter Heller. (Thanks to Goodreads for the cover image!) This post-apocalyptic, gritty novel looks at loneliness and companionship and the way that love between a human and dog can be the purest form of love on earth.
The style of the novel emphasizes the fragmented syntax that would likely come from years and years of solitude. It reflects the fragmented world that surrounds Hig, the narrator, and his dog Jasper. His thoughts--he's so often entirely alone in the world aside from Jasper, so he has a tremendous amount of time to think--are as profound as they are disjointed. “Is it possible to love so desperately that life is unbearable? I don't mean unrequited, I mean being in the love. In the midst of it and desperate. Because knowing it will end, because everything does. End.”
Despite the bleak situation, Heller fosters an eternal feeling of hope. The pragmatic, grouchy narrator never stops pursuing what is to come. Like The Road by Cormac McCarthy, this novel reveals the way that humans, and humanity itself endures. “How you refill. Lying there. Something like happiness, just like water, pure and clear pouring in. So good you don’t even welcome it, it runs through you in a bright stream, as if it has been there all along.”
This novel would work well in literary circles that focus on grief (see this post for more information about a lit circle list for grief) or harsh situations. It would also pair nicely with The Road or even the YA novel Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis. It would be significantly more difficult than the McGinnis novel, so it would be a good way to differentiate for students but cover similar issues.
Though it took me a little while to really get into this novel, I loved it, and it has stayed with me. It's a great read for students interested in post-apocalyptic literature. Heller takes a different, more realistic approach to the bleak situation that faces Hig as the world around him collapses due to warming conditions and disease. Hig's life is excruciatingly difficult at times, but it's also tender and full of hope for what's on the horizon.
“Funny how you can live your whole life waiting and not know it... Waiting for your real life to begin. Maybe the most real thing the end. To realize when it's too late. I know now that I loved him more than anything on earth or off of it."
Lately, I've been looking for ways to utilize technology to accomplish what we as English teachers have traditionally done with index cards for the source card and note card component of research. So far, working with other teachers, we've found three methods that seem to work. Special thanks to Tim Reger and Jen Moyers who worked through this process and created the materials shown below.
If you're only interested in giving your students one option, Google Slides (the first of the three listed below) is the simplest and the easiest to check and grade.
What we did in class: Before we got into the options for the students, we went over the basic concept of using source cards and note cards. We found that it was really helpful for them to have a firm grasp of what they were trying to accomplish prior to showing them different ways to accomplish it. We talked about the importance of pulling single pieces of information for the different notes, and the teacher assessing the project told the students to pull direct quotations only (instead of paraphrasing information). When I taught research, I had them take that approach, too. It kept them from making as many mistakes when it came to quoting and citing in their essays. We used the diagram below and explained the significance of choosing subjects and how the use of those subjects would ultimately help them shape their research papers. Then, once they seemed to understand the way that note cards work with source cards, we moved on the the specific method options.
Slides was a simple option, and it was easy for students to access and turn in on Classroom. Even if you don't normally use Google Classroom, you might want to use it for this assignment so that you can easily share the template with students. Otherwise, you can just share the template with each student and have the students make a copy. They can share their completed source and note cards with you when they finish.
Overall, I liked the way the tag/label features worked better on the Keep and Evernote options, but the Slides were a simple, visual way to organize information, and the Find feature (command + F) worked when students wanted to sort their information according to subjects.
K. Ashley Dickson-Ellison is a former high school English teacher (who is now an instructional technology teacher) interested in exploring the integration of trending young adult literature into the English classroom experience. Ashley is also a member of the podcast Unabridged; check out the podcast site below.
Please note: All ideas and opinions are my own and do not represent my current or past employers.
© K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All thoughts and ideas are the author's and do not represent any employer.